Congressional negotiations over government shutdown and Obamacare, while frustrating, irritating and wholly inappropriate in most voters’ eyes, offer some interesting lessons on negotiating.  Let’s see if we can turn chaos into constructive negotiating principles.

The Good

Believe it or not, there are some good things we can learn from these negotiations:

  1. Spend less time considering what you want and more time defining your values.
  2. Stay true to your values regardless of whether or not it produces the result you desire.
  3. Compromise only if your values remain in tact.

Whether we realize it or not, what we want is based upon our values.  Being cognizant of those values makes it much easier to know whether or not any given compromise allows you to remain true to those values or are a deal breaker.

Here’s a personal experience to demonstrate that point.  A Fortune 500 company approached me to design and deliver training on change.  What the company wanted was for me to teach adults, many of them professionals, how to be happy with changes in which they had no input.  I don’t believe that can happen so I’ll politely declined.

Had the company been open to having me teach its managers to engage employees in change initiatives we could have reached a compromise that would have served all three constituencies – the company, its employees and me.  The company was not open to that approach which meant that their values and mine we not aligned.  Without alignment success simply isn’t possible.

While I would have enjoyed adding this company to my client list, the fact that our values weren’t aligned left me with two options – being true to my values and foregoing the business or compromising the success of all involved AND risking my reputation for producing results.  It was an easy choice.

Most of us have faced a similar dilemma over the course of our careers.  It’s at times like these that a clear understanding of our values allows them to remain true to them whether or not we are able to effect a compromise.

Now for the bad.

The Bad

We often hear that we need to ask for more than what we want so that we can make concessions and allow the other party to feel that they’re getting more (winning the negotiation).  While I believe that each party enters a negotiation with requests that are truly important and some that are simply ‘nice to have,’ I don’t believe in making up concessions.  It muddies the waters and risks derailing a negotiation or misdirecting it before it really has a chance to get started.

Instead, have a clear understanding of which of your requests are merely nice to have and be willing to give them up when you get concessions on what is truly important to you.

The second ‘bad’ takeaway from these congressional negotiations is what happens when you tie a hotly-contested issue to one upon which there is a solid foundation for compromise.  I don’t believe anyone in Congress wants to shutdown the government and that the vast majority would be willing to make compromises to avoid that shutdown.  But when they attach a hotly-contested issue like Obamacare, they limit their ability to achieve a successful compromise on funding.

If you keep issues separate and focus your negotiations initially on the one with the greatest likelihood of resolution through compromise, you lay the foundation for success in negotiating the other.  Trust in each other grows as negotiations reach a successful conclusion as does the belief that there’s reason for hope for future negotiations.  Trust and hope are powerful tools in effecting results acceptable to both parties.

If a resolution truly isn’t possible at this time, then wait for conditions to change.  In the case of the Congressional negotiations, those desiring repeal of Obamacare know that they don’t have the votes to repeal it or even make substantive changes to that law, so why waste political capital in failed attempts to effect changes that aren’t possible.

Whether we realize it or not, failed attempts erode our negotiating position for the future.  We’re much better off acknowledging to one another that we’re not well aligned and that we’re going to suspend negotiations until conditions are more favorable for a compromise.  This approach saves each party a lot of time, energy and negotiating capital, while retaining the respect of the other party to the negotiation.

It’s also congruent with the ‘good‘ aspects of the current negotiations.  The reality is that until something changes, and often we can’t foresee those changes, we won’t see a change in our or the other parties willingness to negotiate.

I remember an article I saw in the Harvard Business Review over 30 years ago entitled “No is not forever.”  Unfortunately I can’t recall the author’s name for surely he/she deserves to be recognized for this wisdom.  The author said, in essence, if there is a problem and you offer a solution and no one is willing to listen, wait.  The problem will only get worse.  When it does and people are ready to listen, present your solution again.

Hopefully that sage advice and some of the insights from this blog will help you enjoy greater success in your negotiations.  I know that it’s made my life a lot easier and more productive.  Happy negotiating!